The 2021 Election came and went in a group of mostly eastern states. Though the results point in various directions, one major standout is Democrats’ steep fall from grace in Virginia and New Jersey. What happened?
What have we discussed before about goods in need of being delivered? Yep, this is what happens when the governing party can’t effectively prove their value in governing. Actions have consequences, and those actions can sway the next election.
So what happened in these elections?
As of yesterday, Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin (R) holds onto a 50.8%-48.6% lead over former Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) in the Old Dominion. And in New Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy (D) holds onto a 50.9%-48.3% lead over Jack Ciattarelli (R). Campaign watchers expected a close race in Virginia, but the close finish in New Jersey came off as a big surprise.
What the hell happened? We can point to various local issues and individual missteps, but it really comes down to this: President Joe Biden. Though Biden’s approval rating took a major hit following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Biden’s numbers had already begun to deteriorate during the summer-long COVID-19 Delta Surge. Yet even as the national media’s Afghanistan coverage faded, Americans’ economic worries jumped into the spotlight due to global supply chain strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated.
Though Biden can only do so much on the overall supply chain, this latest economic crunch has revealed a series of problems in America’s economy that Biden and his Democratic Party have yet to address. As a growing number of Americans in the workforce “vote with their feet” by changing jobs or dropping out of the workforce entirely, the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 per hour since 2009, and federal labor law has yet to adapt to the realities of the current “gig economy“. At the same time, the lack of universal paid sick leave and the lack of more affordable and accessible health care have added to most Americans’ financial woes.
Though the American Rescue Plan includes plenty of relief and recovery programs, some of them – such as expanded unemployment insurance – have already expired. Others – such as housing aid – have not delivered as much relief as Congressional Democrats hoped for due to the inclusion of strict eligibility requirements that function as a “time tax”. The combination of all of this has further exacerbated the “K-shaped recovery” that’s furthering voters’ anger at Biden.
Enough with the “critical race theory” and “Defund the Police” belly-aching!
Hear me out: what if James Carville is amoral and totally out of touch. https://t.co/4OpgJ3k0iI
— A.R. Moxon (@JuliusGoat) November 4, 2021
But wait, what about all the suburban voters’ “outrage” over “wokeness cancel culture run amok!”? Here we go again. We already walked through certain conservative Democrats’ accusations against Black Lives Matter and other racial justice activists over their alleged poisoning of the Democratic Party at the ballot box with their “wokeness”. While some pundits continue to cherry-pick certain 2020 election results from certain states and counties to make their point, the bigger picture just doesn’t corroborate their claims. So far, the same holds true in 2021.
Zooming out to the rest of the country, it’s a mixed bag on criminal justice and questions over the future of the police. While moderate and conservative Democrats can claim victory over “Defund the Police” in Seattle and Minneapolis, racial justice activists prevailed in ballot initiatives on police power in Austin and Cleveland, and Boston elected a more progressive mayor and city council despite attempts by conservative opponents to sink them with “Defund the Police” based attacks.
Back to Virginia and New Jersey: McAuliffe ran a much more cautiously centrist and Trump-centric campaign, whereas Murphy ran a much more progressive campaign centered on his and Democratic legislators’ recent accomplishments. So far McAuliffe is set to finish about 11% below outgoing Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) almost 9% margin of victory in 2017 in Virginia, while Murphy is set to finish around 10% below his own 2017 victory in New Jersey. And so far, we’re not seeing any signs of Republicans turning in particularly impressive performances in heavily college-educated white-collar suburban counties where pundits wondered whether Democrats could continue to overperform. Perhaps instead of quickly assigning blame to “critical race theory” conspiracy theories, Democrats should actually try rebuilding their relationship with most voters?
When they can’t see promises being kept, this is what happens in the election.
Black turnout is the biggest midterm Achilles heel for the Democratic Party and completely neutralizes any differential turnout advantage that they’d get by education.
It’s a problem they need to solve. If you don’t deliver for or appeal to Black voters, why would they show up? https://t.co/rfk8p2K8pP
— Lakshya Jain (@lxeagle17) November 4, 2021
Virginia Democrats had something of a turnout disaster on Tuesday. Relatively speaking, Democrats did not turn out nearly as many voters as they did 4 years years ago in many critical Democratic strongholds. pic.twitter.com/IV3Tb3JDqY
— Ryan Brune (@BruneElections) November 4, 2021
On October 18, we specifically warned: “Democrats have fallen into a serious credibility gap by failing to establish a record of consistently delivering on their campaign promises whenever they win enough governing power to do so. […] Democrats’ ‘strategic retreats’ and ‘pivots toward moderation’ backfire on them once voters see that they again failed to deliver on their campaign promises. Instead of appreciating the ‘smart strategy’, they just notice broken promises, and they have a harder time believing Democrats’ next round of campaign promises on the very same issues where they broke their prior promises.”
Though Virginia Democrats avoided a total collapse in the more affluent and highly college educated D.C. suburbs that were allegedly “ground zero in the wokeness cancel culture war!”, they took a nose-dive in areas like Virginia’s Southside where they rely most on Black voters to have any chance at winning the election. It didn’t help that McAuliffe won the Democratic nomination by strong-arming the party establishment to circle the wagons around him and push aside the Black women who challenged him in the primary, and it really didn’t help that the major Democratic Party players slacked off (again) in Latinx/Latine community outreach.
Though Virginia Democratic legislators did pass some major changes on civil rights – such as abolishing the death penalty, banning no-knock warrants, and ushering in comprehensive LGBTQ+ non-discrimination policies – McAuliffe mostly avoided campaigning on his fellow Democrats’ progressive accomplishments. And just across the Potomac in D.C., federal Democrats still had hardly any accomplishments to show beyond the American Rescue Plan and judicial confirmations. If they want to perform better at the next election, they need to change this dynamic quickly.
Finally, a breakthrough… Or a breakdown?
That last part suddenly changed last weekend, when House Democratic leaders rushed through final passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (or “the bipartisan infrastructure bill”) alongside a procedural vote that’s supposed to clear the Build Back Better Act (or the reconciliation climate change and economic relief package) for final passage within the next two weeks. Immediately following the House’s 228-206 vote to pass the “bipartisan bill”, Senators Catherine Cortez Masto (D) and Jacky Rosen (D) quickly touted its benefits: $65 billion for broadband expansion, $25 billion for airports, $8.3 billion for Western water infrastructure (including $300 million for Colorado River drought management), $3.4 billion for wildfire prevention, $16.9 million for Lake Tahoe, and a series of school upgrade programs.
While some Nevadans may be excited for some of these coming infrastructure investments, we should keep in mind that the total $548 billion in new infrastructure investment is considerably less than the 2009 Recovery Act (which had $831 billion worth of benefits in 2009 that would amount to $1.062 trillion in today’s dollars), and that at most the “bipartisan bill” may provide some long-term help with the supply chain. But when it comes to Americans’ top worries over inflation and double-dip recession, the “bipartisan bill” doesn’t address that. In contrast, and depending on how future negotiations shake out, the Build Back Better reconciliation package will likely include new programs on housing, health care, and child care that address the key drivers behind Americans’ inflation fears and overall economic worries.
In their respective statements and interviews following the House “bipartisan bill” vote, Reps. Dina Titus (D-Las Vegas) and Steven Horsford (D-North Las Vegas) both called for Congress to follow through on the “two-track infrastructure” promise by passing Build Back Better. The House voted 221-213 on an early procedural move to set up a final vote for Build Back Better. And now that the main point of progressives’ leverage to ensure final passage of Build Back Better – the “bipartisan bill” – is no longer there, it’s up to President Joe Biden himself and Democratic Congressional leaders to decide whether to go all in for a more significant legislative achievement or settle for an extra porky highway bill that most Republicans would have supported pre-Obama.
Why did the election go so differently for Gavin Newsom in California?
Less than two months ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) easily defeated Republicans’ attempt to recall him out of office. It’s wild to think about how the pundit chatter on the 2022 election has changed drastically in just under two months. So how did Newsom avoid the same political fate as McAuliffe, and why did he win by a much larger margin than Murphy?
First, California is much friendlier turf for Democrats than either Virginia or New Jersey. Second, Biden’s approval rating entered into net negative territory during California Recall early voting, and it’s dropped some more since their September 14 election. Third, Newsom and his campaign successfully contrasted his governing record with the Republicans’ Trumpy alternative (as opposed to just shouting, “Orange Man Bad!”, in a constant flood of TV ads). And fourth, multiple progressive groups went into overdrive to reach out to voters of color and help with turnout that would ultimately guarantee a landslide margin of victory for Newsom.
As we noted in our first post-recall column on September 14, “There’s a reason why California Republicans increasingly abandoned their own ‘populist anti-lockdown platform’ during the final days of the recall campaign to instead focus on [baseless ‘scandal’ allegations and ‘culture war’ fights]. Here’s a hint: It’s the same reason why Newsom successfully steered the public’s focus back to his policy platform during the final weeks of the California Recall campaign. The quicker Newsom’s fellow Democrats grasp these lessons and apply this knowledge to their own work, the better they can prepare for 2022 and beyond.” The same holds true now.
The cover photo was taken by me.